Advertising Islamophobia Hits London Railways

On Monday 17 December billboards advertising free Qurans, were taken down. I've seen an email from JCDecaux which states the following (my emphasis added): "...rail companies have pointed out that this is not acceptable and we should not have done so."

An estimated one billion passengers are carried on railway journeys each year. In the UK, despite spiralling costs, it's an important part of everyday life for many people.

According to ONS figures, the Office of Rail Regulation states that total private investment in the railway industry has plummeted from £881m six years ago to £503m in 2011/12. Passenger journeys increased 7.8% in the last 12 months and by 27.5% over the last five years. In particular, London and South East services saw the highest increase last year of 8.3%. Rail audiences are affluent and influential with 75% ABC1 and 57% Business Decision Makers.

All of this makes a great case for advertising on the railways which comes in various flavours; outdoor digital formats with Transvision (huge LED screens), posters and billboards. As you might expect, the value of this advertising space is significant. In 2009, Primesight purchased Titan Outdoor in a multi-million pound deal, which included half of its assets made up of its Network Rail contract - the largest stock of roadside billboards in the country. The interior advertising assets of the railway is another story altogether.

In 2010, Network Rail renewed its existing contract with JCDecaux for advertising on the interiors of its railway stations - a five year deal valued at £160m. That deal included all rail-facing ad sites across Network Rail and the 18 Network Rail-managed stations.

Who exactly is JCDecaux? Well, they are an extraordinarily large advertising organisation. JCDecaux is unashamedly the top global company in "street furniture" (what we might call advertising panels), transport advertising with 175 airports and 280 contracts in metros, buses, trains and tramways, European billboards and outdoor advertising in the Asia-Pacific region. To put this in to some kind of context, those areas alone amount to more than 1,000,000 advertising panels in more than 55 countries. With revenues in 2010 of almost €2.5bn, what austerity afflicted industry is this you may ask. Part of the reason is JCDecaux's incredible ability to negotiate massive advertising contracts - often 15 years long - in France, Hong Kong, Netherlands and many other places. In 2012, the OFT came down hard on JCDecaux for sharp practices in the UK and for lock-out clauses which resulted in a raft of measures to change their business practices. This year they managed to force LOCOG to remove their billboards and have their questionable Paddy Power billboards returned around the Olympic site.

In the UK, an organisation called the Quran Project planned to place posters in five major London Railway Stations - Waterloo, Victoria, Liverpool St, Marylebone and St Pancras International during 10 - 24 December 2012. The chairman of the UK registered charity, Dr Wleed Haq tells me the billboard campaign was designed to tackle the causes of Islamophobia in the UK by distributing 1,000 free copies of the English translation of the Quran to non-Muslims. To date, the charity has distributed 50,000 copies since its formation two years ago. A similar campaign called The Rail Dawah Campaign 2011 was run across across Midland Railway stations (also Network Rail) in December 2011 without objection or complaint.

The London railway posters went up at different times between Mon - Thurs last week. The campaign had been six months in the planning and the sites were reserved by JCDecaux who had approved the campaign, at a cost of £30,000, two thirds of which was raised online with JustGiving, a popular crowd funding platform.

On Monday, 17 December, these billboards advertising free Qurans, were taken down. I've seen an email from JCDecaux which states the following (my emphasis added):

"...rail companies have pointed out that this is not acceptable and we should not have done so. As a consequence, we began the process of removing your posters from the rail stations over the weekend..."

The fact remains that both JCDecaux and Network Rail have allowed similar campaigns for other religious groups over the last two years, in particular The Trinitarian Bible Society and the Alpha Course, who have advertised widely including at Marylebone station (operated by Chiltern Railways).

At Marylebone, the Quran Project poster was taken down after only one day. As it currently stands, the rail companies, Network Rail and JCDecaux cannot sustain any claim in relation to a policy of no religious advertisement on their assets.

The point of complaint may well be with JCDecaux, for whom business has been brisk with revenue for the first nine months of 2012 already totalling €1,876.2m. Like every user friendly, cut-throat global organisation, JCDecaux has an 'ethics policy' and even a 'Group Ethics Committee'. The policy states that the committee is chaired by Chairman of the Audit Committee, one Xavier de Sarrau. It may even be that the complaint from the Quran Project may reach Monsieur de Sarrau. Sadly, this may be difficult. Xavier de Sarrau is stable mate and closely allied to Sarkozy and the Fouquet powerbase, he has accompanied the former President on more than one occasion, is listed as a friend and even went to the White House dinner with him. It's probably fairly safe to assume not only his political persuasion but also his view of multiculturalism, let alone the overt presence of Islam in society.

This in itself must raise questions about how we go about tackling pandemic Islamophobia, if policies and those who police them are not only beyond reproach but advocates of such prejudice. In the end we have the irony that an anti-Islamophobia campaign has been entirely derailed by precisely the potentially discriminatory policies of Network Rail, JCDecaux and the railway companies, which they are attempting to challenge in the first place.

At a time when 74% of the British public claim that they know 'nothing or next to nothing about Islam' and furthermore that 64% of the British public claim that what they do know is solely acquired through the media; I'm left to reflect on the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the power of advertising and the ability to raise the consciousness of a society:

"If I were starting life over again, I am inclined to think that I would go into the advertising business in preference to almost any other. The general raising of the standards of modern civilization among all groups of people during the past half century would have been impossible without the spreading of the knowledge of higher standards by means of advertising."


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